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Selected Poems

Written by James MerrillAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James Merrill
Edited by J. D. McClatchyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen YenserAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Stephen Yenser

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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents


James Merrill himself once called his body of work “chronicles of love and loss,” and in twenty books written over four decades he used the details of his own life—comic and haunting, exotic and domestic—to shape a portrait that in turn mirrored the image of our world and our moment. This volume rings together the best of Merrill—from the domestic rupture of “The Broken Home” to the universal connections of “Lost in Translation”; from the American storyteller of “The Summer People” to the ecologically motivated satirist of “Self-Portrait in a TyvekTM Windbreaker.” Merrill dazzles at every turn, and this balanced and compact selection will be an ideal introduction to the work for both students and general readers, and an instant favorite among his familiars.

Then when the flame forked like a sudden path
I gasped and stumbled, and was less.
Density pulsing upward, gauze of ash,
Dear light along the way to nothingness,
What could be made of you but light, and this?


THE BLACK SWANBlack on flat water past the jonquil lawnsRiding, the black swan drawsA private chaos warbling in its wake,Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendorThat calls the child with white ideas of swansNearer to that green lakeWhere every paradox means wonder.Though the black swan’s arched neck is likeA question-mark on the lake,The swan outlaws all possible questioning:A thing in itself, like love, like submarineDisaster, or the first sound when we wake;And the swan-song it singsIs the huge silence of the swan.Illusion: the black swan knows how to breakThrough expectation, beakAimed now at its own breast, now at its image,And move across our lives, if the lake is life,And by the gentlest turning of its neckTransform, in time, time’s damage;To less than a black plume, time’s grief.Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enterSorrow’s lost secret centerWhere like a maypole separate tragediesAre wound about a tower of ribbons, and whereThe central hollowness is that pure winterThat does not change but isAlways brilliant ice and air.Always the black swan moves on the lake; alwaysThe blond child stands to gazeAs the tall emblem pivots and rides outTo the opposite side, always. The child uponThe bank, hands full of difficult marvels, staysForever to cry aloudIn anguish: I love the black swan. THE HOUSEWhose west walls take the sunset like a blowWill have turned the other cheek by morning, thoughThe long night falls between, as wise men know:Wherein the wind, that daily we forgot,Comes mixed with rain and, while we seek it not,Appears against our faces to have soughtThe contours of a listener in night air,His profile bent as from pale windows whereSoberly once he learned what houses were.Those darkening reaches, crimsoned with a dustNo longer earth’s, but of the vanishing West,Can stir a planet nearly dispossessed,And quicken interest in the avid veinThat dyes a man’s heart ruddier far than stainOf day does finial, cornice and windowpane:So that whoever strolls on his launched lawnAt dusk, the hour of recompense, alone,May stumbling on a sunken boundary stoneThe loss of deed and structure apprehend.And we who homeless toward such houses wendMay find we have dwelt elsewhere. Scholar and friend,After the twelve bright houses that each dayPresume to flatter what we most display,Night is a cold house, a narrow doorway.This door to no key opens, those to brass.Behind it, warning of a deep excess,The winds are. I have entered, nevertheless,And seen the wet-faced sleepers the winds takeTo heart; have felt their dreadful profits breakBeyond my seeing: at a glance they wake. THE COUNTRY OF A THOUSAND YEARS OF PEACEto Hans Lodeizen (1924–1950)Here they all come to die,Fluent therein as in a fourth tongue.But for a young man not yet of their raceIt was a madness you should lieBlind in one eye, and fedBy the blood of a scrubbed face;It was a madness to look downOn the toy city whereThe glittering neutralityOf clock and chocolate and lake and cloudMade every morning somewhatLess than you could bear;And makes me cry aloudAt the old masters of diseaseWho dangling high above you on a hairThe sword that, never falling, killsWould coax you still back from that starry landUnder the world, which no one seesWithout a death, its finish and sharp weightFlashing in his own hand.THE LOVERSThey met in loving like the hands of oneWho having worked six days with creature and plantWashes his hands before the evening meal.Reflected in a basin out-of-doorsThe golden sky receives his hands beneathIts coldly wishing surface, washing themOf all perhaps but what of one anotherEach with its five felt perceptions holds:A limber warmth, fitness of palm and nailSo long articulate in his mind beforePlunged into happening, that all the whileWater laps and loves the stirring handsHis eye has leisure for the young fruit-treesAnd lowing beasts secure, since night is near,Pasture, lights of a distant town, and skyMolten, atilt, strewn on new water, skyIn which for a last fact he dips his faceAnd lifts it glistening: what dark distinctReflections of his features upon gold!—Except for when each slow slight water-dropHe sensed on chin and nose accumulate,Each tiny world of sky reversed and branches,Fell with its pure wealth to mar the image:World after world fallen into the skyAnd still so much world left when, by the fireWith fingers clasped, he set in revolutionCertitude and chance like strong slow thumbs;Or read from an illuminated pageOf harvest, flood, motherhood, mystery:These waited, and would issue from his hands.A RENEWALHaving used every subterfugeTo shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,Now I see no way but a clean break.I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.We sit, watching. When I next speakLove buries itself in me, up to the hilt.UPON A SECOND MARRIAGEfor H. I. P.Orchards, we linger here becauseWomen we love stand propped in your green prisons,Obedient to such justly bending lawsEach one longs to take root,Lives to confess whatever season’sPride of blossom or endeavor’s fruitMay to her rustling boughs have risen.Then autumn reddens the whole mind.No more, she vows, the dazzle of a yearShall woo her from your bare cage of loud wind,Promise the ring and runTo burn the altar, reappearWith apple blossoms for the credulous one.Orchards, we wonder that we linger here!Orchards we planted, trees we shookTo learn what you were bearing, say we stayedBecause one winter dusk we half-mistookFrost on a bleakened boughFor blossoms, and were half-afraidTo miss the old persuasion, should we go.And spring did come, and discourse madeEnough of weddings to us allThat, loving her for whom the whole world growsFragrant and white, we linger to recallAs down aisles of cut treesHow a tall trunk’s cross-section showsConcentric rings, those many marriagesThat life on each live thing bestows.THE CHARIOTEER OF DELPHIWhere are the horses of the sun?Their master’s green bronze hand, empty of allBut a tangle of reins, seems less to callHis horses back than to wait out their run.To cool that havoc and restoreThe temperance we had loved them forI have implored him, child, at your behest.Watch now, the flutings of his dress hang downFrom the brave patina of breast.His gentle eyes glass brownNeither attend us nor the latest oneBlistered and stammering who comes to cryVillage in flames and river dry,None to control the chariotAnd to call back the killing horses noneNow that their master, eyes ashine, will not.For watch, his eyes in the still air aloneLook shining and nowhereUnless indeed into our ownWho are reflected thereLittler than dolls wound up by a child’s fearHow tight, their postures only know.And loosely, watch now, the reins overflowHis fist, as if once more the unsubduedBeasts shivering and docile stoodLike us before him. Do you remember howA small brown pony wouldNuzzle the cube of sugar from your hand?Broken from his mild reprimandIn fire and fury hard upon the tasteOf a sweet license, even these have racedUncurbed in us, where fires are fanned.MIRRORI grow old under an intensityOf questioning looks. Nonsense,I try to say, I cannot teach you childrenHow to live.—If not you, who will?Cries one of them aloud, grasping my gildedFrame till the world sways. If not you, who will?Between their visits the table, its arrangementOf Bible, fern and Paisley, all past change,Does very nicely. If ever I feel curiousAs to what others endure,Across the parlor you provide examples,Wide open, sunny, of everything I amNot. You embrace a whole world without once caringTo set it in order. That takes thought. Out thereSomething is being picked. The red-and-white bandannasGo to my heart. A fine young manRides by on horseback. Now the door shuts. HesterConfides in me her first unhappiness.This much, you see, would never have been fittedTogether, but for me. Why then is itThey more and more neglect me? Late one sleeplessMidsummer night I strained to keepFive tapers from your breathing. No, the widowedCousin said, let them go out. I did.The room brimmed with gray sound, all the instreamingMuslin of your dream . . .Years later now, two of the grown grandchildrenSit with novels face-down on the sill,Content to muse upon your tall transparence,Your clouds, brown fields, persimmon farAnd cypress near. One speaks. How superficialAppearances are! Since then, as if a fishHad broken the perfect silver of my reflectiveness,I have lapses. I suspectLooks from behind, where nothing is, cool gazesThrough the blind flaws of my mind. As days,As decades lengthen, this visionSpreads and blackens. I do not know whose it is,But I think it watches for my last silverTo blister, flake, float leaf by life, each milling-Downward dumb conceit, to a standstillFrom which not even you strike any brilliantChord in me, and to a faceless will,Echo of mine, I am amenable.

Table of Contents


From First Poems, 1951
The Black Swan
The House

From The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, 1959
The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace
The Lovers
A Renewal
Upon a Second Marriage
The Charioteer of Delphi
The Doodler
Voices From the Other World
In the Hall of Mirrors
A Dedication

From Water Street, 1962
An Urban Convalescence
After Greece
For Proust
Scenes of Childhood
Swimming by Night
A Tenancy

From Nights and Days, 1966
The Thousand and Second Night
Charles on Fire
The Broken Home
The Current
The Mad Scene
From The Cupola
Days of 1964

From The Fire Screen, 1969

The Friend of the Fourth Decade
Words for Maria
To My Greek
Last Words
Another August
Mornings in a New House
The Summer People

From Braving the Elements, 1972
After the Fire
Days of 1935
18 West 11th Street
Willowware Cup
From Up and Down
Flèche d’or
Days of 1971
The Victor Dog

From Divine Comedies, 1976
The Kimono
Lost in Translation
Chimes for Yahya
Verse for Urania
The Will

From The Changing Light at Sandover, 1982
From The Book of Ephraim
From Scripts for the Pageant

From Late Settings, 1985
The Pier: Under Pisces
The School Play
Page From the Koran
Channel 13
Paul Valéry: Palme
After the Ball

From The Inner Room, 1988
Little Fallacy
Arabian Night
The Parnassians
Ginger Beef
Dead Center
Losing the Marbles
Investiture at Cecconi’s
Farewell Performance

From A Scattering of Salts, 1995
A Downward Look
Nine Lives
Snow Jobs
The Instilling
My Father’s Irish Setters
Vol. XLIV, No. 3
b o d y
Family Week at Oracle Ranch
Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia
Self-Portrait in TyvekTM Windbreaker
An Upward Look

From Collected Poems, 2001
After Cavafy
In the Pink
Rhapsody on Czech Themes
Christmas Tree
Days of 1994

Short Chronology
Suggestions for Further Reading
James Merrill|J. D. McClatchy

About James Merrill

James Merrill - Selected Poems

Photo © New London Day

James Merrill was born on March 3, 1926, in New York City and died on February 6, 1995. From the mid-1950s on, he lived in Stonington, Connecticut, and for extended periods he also had houses in Athens and Key West. From The Black Swan (1946) through A Scattering of Salts (1995), he wrote twelve books of poems, ten of them published in trade editions, as well as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). He also published two plays, The Immortal Husband (1956) and The Bait (1960); two novels, The Seraglio (1957, reissued 1987) and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965, reissued 1994); a book of essays, interviews, and reviews, Recitative (1986); and a memoir, A Different Person (1993). Over the years, he was the winner of numerous awards for his poetry, including two National Book Awards, the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser are James Merrill’s literary executors. J. D. McClatchy has published six volumes of poetry and two collections of essays. He teaches at Yale and is the editor of The Yale Review. Stephen Yenser has written three books of criticism (one about Merrill) and a volume of poems. He is a professor of English and the director of Creative Writing at UCLA.

James Merrill’s Collected Poems is available in Knopf paperback. The Voice of the Poet: James Merrill is available from Random House Audio.

About J. D. McClatchy

J. D. McClatchy - Selected Poems
J. D. McClatchy is the author of five collections of poems: Scenes From Another Life, Stars Principal, The Rest of the Way, Ten Commandments, and Hazmat. He has also written two books of essays: White Paper and Twenty Questions. He has edited many other books, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, Poets on Painters, and Horace: The Odes. In addition, he edits The Voice of the Poet series for Random House AudioBooks, and has written seven opera libretti. He is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has taught at Princeton, UCLA, and Johns Hopkins, and is now a professor at Yale, where since 1991 he has edited The Yale Review. He lives in Stonington, Connecticut.

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